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Storyteller Spotlight: Richard Watson Time-Lapse Professional

Brandon Petersen:

How did you initially get into film and photography?


Richard Watson:

I'm in commercial advertising photography. So I got into that full time under my own name 11 years ago. And before that, me and a couple of guys ran a physical design company, and in 2009 I was turning 36, and I thought, "If I don't jump out now and do this for myself, I'll never forgive myself." So 11 years shooting commercial advertising photography. So obviously with the SLRs, film became a part of that over time, but I love travel photography, and I've always loved time-lapse. I'm addicted to watching clouds. 


I'm always just driving along watching clouds form, and that movement. And just, time-lapse, just seeing that time sped up has always really, really tickled me. And then I guess I came across the work of Morten Rustad, and I saw some of his work, Seasons of Norway, many years ago and he just travels the world shooting time-lapses, he's so good at that.


And basically, I got the Arc I, and I was so excited about using that. And it was a fantastic bit of kit, but it didn't quite get the inclines, those really dramatic lifts that I wanted. Because I love landscape photography, and whenever Arc II came it was, "Yes, happy days, I've been waiting for this forever."


So yeah, it's been great. And then I guess with lock down, with 2020 being such a crazy year, all my commercial work kind of dried up. So I threw myself into landscape photography, and then as lock down kicked in even more, I thought, "You know what, I'm going to just use the time to do a long-term time lapse project."


So it's been tough going, but it's been so amazing so far. I'm only halfway through, I've lots more to shoot, but it's been... Yeah, I kind of thought if I'm carrying a time-lapse kit up mountains, I might finally lose some of the lock down weight I put on! Yeah, it's been tough, but it's been amazing.


BP:

So where are you based out of then?


RW:

Based in Belfast in Northern Ireland. And the Mourne Mountains is our local mountain range, it's quite a smallish mountain range. And that's where I've been focusing this time-lapse project on.

BP:

So you've always been inspired by the moving imagery of nature. Tell me a little bit more about this project. What are your hopes to achieve with it?


RW:

I'd seen one or two time-lapse projects in the Mournes region, the Mournes area. There's a local guy who did something a few years ago, and it was a beautiful piece. But I wanted to do something that really felt true to the mountains.


Every time I go up, maybe like one in three times I get something I'm happy with. Two out of three times, I'm in a cloud, or the rain, and it's like a battle, it really is. Sometimes you get a beautiful sunset, but more often than not you're in a low cloud, it's miserable, it's raining. And I kind of wanted to shoot something that felt like the whole breadth of the weather, the conditions you get up there.


I turned 47 last year, so I'm kicking myself that I didn't get into outdoor life 15 years ago. I have spent 10 years solely focused on commercial work, and lock down was the big kick up the ass I needed to get outdoors, and go hiking, and go get a tent. So I've done a lot of wild camping and getting outdoors and things. And in January of last year I got a camper van.


It's funny, that was in January last year. And normally in January, when I come back from Christmas, I'm all fired up ready for a bigger and better commercial year. I email all my clients, I go and have coffees, and try to push in more work. And when the camper van came, it was like the opposite. I almost felt like, "I just don't want to work at all. I just want the year off, I want to travel in my van."


So my whole focus of wanting to work kind of revolved around wanting to be in the van outdoors, and shoot more nature-based stuff. So I kind of almost wished I had a year out, and then COVID came. So I kind of thought, "Did I wish COVID? Did I bring COVID on the world? Did I wish for this?"


So yeah, that was another big factor of getting the van. I do a lot of tourism work in Belfast. I do a lot of billboards and advertising. So I guess part of the time lapse project was to try to tease in more work that suits outdoor life, that suits the van being on the road. So that was another factor in jumping into this project.


BP:

Has saying “yes” to some of these new ventures helped push you creatively?


RW:

It's helped me creatively enormously. When you say, "Saying yes," part of it was, I guess being forced into a position where the world was saying, "No." When your work dried up, you had all this time in your hand, you were kind of going a wee bit crazy. And I thought, "Well, I'm going to go out and shoot landscape, I'm going to use the time to shoot landscape instead."


I put together a site. I sell fine art stills, landscape stills. So I guess that was saying yes, or just trying to refocus your efforts. I'm quite lucky at the minute to have a friend who's an amazing photographer from here, who's also shooting a series of panoramic images of the Mourne Mountains as well. So he's always up for any kind of trip you're going on.


So it's nice to have people who are also doing something similar in the same region, the same area. Because sometimes it's quite easy to sort of not be bothered, or not wanting to push yourself on, but whenever you have a few of you driving towards similarish goals in slightly different fields, whenever you just don't feel like it and they say, "Do you want to go tomorrow? We're starting at four in the morning."


It's like, "Okay, yes, okay." So in a way it's nice getting people around you creatively to ask you the question, to push you to say yes. Because sometimes it's easy to, I almost failed the minute, I'm halfway through my project, we had a really big blast of snow here, a really cold spell for about two weeks, and it's kind of thawed out, it's passed for now, and in a way I'm glad to have a break because I was exhausted; I'm carrying 20 kilograms at a time, up 700 meter mountains, I'm 47 years old, it's like crazy. But no, it's been so, so rewarding.


And to be honest, even when you don't get the conditions you're looking for, it's been so many years since I've been in this mountain range. And as I said, lock down kind of forced me to get out and go and explore it, initially from a stills photography point of view. But it's almost like you're getting to know the mountains, even whenever it doesn't work out for you, it's just beautiful being out.


And I think from a time-lapse point of view, if we're getting back to using the Arc, it's tricky because sometimes you're in wind gusts of 40 to 50 miles an hour, it's really difficult to shoot a time lapse. You can see, I spent so much of my time sitting in cloud, and waiting for the cloud to clear, but it doesn't, and one thing I've learned is you have to learn to adapt to read the conditions, to kind of read what you're being given by nature, and kind of adapt. And if the clouds come in and stay low. If the wind is too high, just go put the Rhino on a tripod, and don't go for a movement. And you kind of have to adapt to what you're given. And that's one thing I've really learned in order to keep momentum in what I'm doing, is I try to come back from every trip with one time-lapse I'm happy with, one decent clip.


But what I find, and it's the ultimate thing really in doing this, is you just have to enjoy being out. Because I've had plenty of times where I've got nothing, and you come back really disheartened, and you just have to remind yourself you're out in a mountain range, you're normally really busy with commercial work, and you're sitting watching the sun go down, albeit you might be in a cloud, but you're outdoors. And you have to learn just to enjoy the experience. If you get a really nice time-lapse clip, then happy days. But if you don't, it's just nice to be outdoors.

BP:

Tell me a little bit about your process. How do you decide, "Okay, I'm going to set up here, and this is what we're going for." So what are those initial goals? And then if you want to just get into a little bit of the tech side of, maybe your typical settings and things that you do to find best results.


RW:

I guess coming from a stills photography point of view, time-lapse, I suppose, is a moving image, but it's obviously like a series of hundreds of photos. And coming from a commercial photography background, to landscape photography, to time-lapse, to me it's all about the foreground. It's so important to have a really, really, really, really strong foreground


I see a lot of time lapses, and yeah, it's okay. Like if you look at the guy, Morten Rustad, who as I said, is my hero, you'll have plenty of shots... And to be honest, some days you can't include a foreground. Some days if the sun comes out and goes in, if it's very kind of sunny really, because the foreground just looks too busy, the sun's flickering.


So again, it depends what you're given. But generally speaking, I do a lot of research online, Google Earth. I try to find nice compositions. I'll look around various social media platforms, other photographers I know, and just got a feel for what areas... I guess a lot of the areas that I've shot so far have been shot quite a lot, and that's why I want, in the second half of what I'm doing, I kind of want to go and just walk the mountains, kind of stumble across areas that just jump out at me, that I haven't researched so to speak.


But a lot of it so far has been based on research. But how I find the spot, yeah it's very important from a photography point of view, to have really strong lead-in lines, where ideally I want the start frame of my time-lapse and the end frame to both work as photographs in their own right. And I think that's what's important to me.


So if you can pause the time-lapse at any point, it sort of stands alone as a good photograph. And that's what I try to do. So it's all about your rule of thirds, it's about your lead-in lines, and just try to see it as a sequence of photographs. And see, to be honest, see being able to do a lift up a vertical incline for a time-lapse, that high-torque motor is like a God send for me, like that's exactly why I invested in the Rhino system. It just really is fantastic; just to be able to do a move that aggressive. Although I try to keep my moves quite subtle, although the second half of this project I'm probably going to ramp it up and make the moves a bit more dynamic.


But to be able to... Like one of the shots I did, I got the 42 inch slider, and hung it on the vines coming down a tree. And that was how it was hooked on. And it just did like a vertical climb right up through the vines. And it's just... You're sitting watching it just going, "This is incredible."


From the Arc I, for example, which I struggled to get it past 15 degrees, to doing a perfect vertical climb with that amount of kit is fantastic. So I have a 24" and a 42". And I always plan to bring the 24 the odd time, just to give my back a break, but I always bring the longer one. Because it's tricky, you kind of go up a mountain, and I don't always bring, let's say, a 70-200mm to zoom in and pick out a detail. But the one time you don't have it is whenever you see something you want it.


So I have a drone, I have all this... I was going to do drone work as well, and then I thought, "No, keep it at purely time-lapse," because it's more specialist, it's more beautiful... Everyone flies a drone. To me, time-lapse is more of a beautiful thing, to see the world sped up, and see the movement of time.


But yeah, you're kind of making sacrifices and choices whenever you go up. And I keep thinking sometimes I'll just bring the Rhino, or the Arc on it's own without the slider, just for still panos, or just slight panos. But whenever it comes to it, I just want to bring the whole kit. So it's tough going in a mountain range. I'm looking forward to that when this is over, I can do things that are on ground level and a bit more simple, but it's a fantastic bit of kit, it really is.


BP:

Do you have to do anything to make sure there isn't condensation on your front element of the lens?


RW:

So my project is going to be the seasons of Mourne, so it's going to be the seasons of this mountain range. So far I've done autumn, I'm kind of in the middle of winter, which is mainly daytime winter-based work. But once I've done that, and the Milky Way season starts here, around February/March, so I really want to move it on to astro-based work, which we'll be shooting during the night.


So for the camera point of view, yes, I have a lens heater, which is just part of the power bank, to stop condensation. Anytime I have tried it, yeah it totally fogs up, sometimes it fogs up, sometimes it's okay. So as I said, so I'm currently shooting the winter part of the video now, and I want to get... There's a couple of very specific shots I want to get for transitions. I want to get a forest bed with the snow falling over time, I'd love to get the snow melting. So I have a shot list in my head.


So when you were saying earlier, how you plan it, I guess now it's got to a certain point, I kind of know in my head the shots that I want to get or keep the sequence flowing the way I want. So after I finish winter, I'll move on to a lot of astro work. And then after I've done that, and the spring comes, I'm going to really move it on to rain, and storms, and go out in horrible weather.

We can't wait for Richard's completion of this project. The sequences he's been able to capture thus far are truly breathtaking. Best of luck Richard as you finish out the project!


You can follow Richard on Instagram or purchase some of his amazing images on his website.


Richard's go-to motion kit for time-lapse

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